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Surrounded by Life: Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

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Emily, Alone, by Stewart O'Nan, is a book of quiet yet stunning beauty; steady and trim from the outside, like its protagonist, and, just like her, stirring inside with deep longings, intense observations, and a strong attachment to living. Emily is of the age she claims she never wanted to reach, the very last of her neighborhood's country club gang of mothers, and living far from her children and grandchildren, who call frequently but not enough, and visit even less often. Emily is tethered to life seemingly only through ties to her sister-in-law Arlene, her own aging dog, and her deep love for her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. But O'Nan will surprise us, uncovering within his character a capacity for finding so much still to live for -- so many ties holding her to people and to places -- and providing a reminder to us all of life's capacity to excite and invigorate, at any age.

Pittsburgh is a character in O'Nan's novel, intimately and affectionately portrayed, both as the shining city of culture and sophistication that Emily discovered in her youth (coming as she did from a small country town) and as the solidly placed (and stolid) loci of so many of her memories, habits, and traditions now that she is old. I don't know Pittsburgh, but through O'Nan's words I have become familiar with its different family neighborhoods, with the sweep of its boulevards and the "limestone monstrosities along Fifth Avenue", and the majesty of its landmarks, like the Point, "which never failed to impress, jutting like a prow into the choppy confluence."

Intended or not, Emily, Alone is a love letter to Pittsburgh, an elegy to its past and present. At the same time, it is both love letter and elegy to a mother. Dedicated to his mother, did O'Nan have her in mind when creating Emily? What a writer O'Nan is, to be able to write so convincingly as a woman. What a woman he has created, so hard on herself, so unforgiving, so capable of both indignant outbursts and long-unexpressed feelings, and of hidden connections and deep desires. Raised to believe in the equal power of good etiquette and good works, the world has become something of a mystery to Emily, and at times a disappointment. She spends her days attending to daily errands, planning for future visits with her children (and worrying about them and her grandchildren), and dreading the almost weekly phone call of another passed friend.

And yet moments of peace and joy come to Emily, moments of reading, of listening to music, of tenderness between her children, of watching snow falling in the winter and of gardening in the spring. A visit to an exhibit of Van Gogh paintings with Arlene ("Barring a miracle, this would be the last time either of them would see these big Van Goghs") provides Emily with a vision that lifts her from her end of winter depression, providing anew a force of movement, of looking forward: "How strange that his choice of color, made so long ago, was waiting to dispel her gloom at just that moment."

Emily, Alone is quiet but absolutely searing in its completeness, its honesty, its clarity. Emily looks backward, reliving memories from her past, and forward, anticipating what there is still left for her. In Emily's thoughts, I recognized my own internal debates about aging, changing expectations, and meaning of life. We age but we remain the same; Emily is still plagued by inadequacies she felt under her parents' demands and uncertainties about her own worthiness. Because she is of a certain age, she believes she must plan sensibly for her death (and she does) but as death approaches, taking friends before her, she finds she is still planning for her future. What Emily uncovers -- it was always there inside -- is that she is fully alive in how she is attuned to unexpected wonder; how at, any age, even when life fits a set pattern of routine and little events mark the calendar, when days are spent waiting for grandchildren to visit or flowers to finally rise up or coupons to be useful at the local diner, surprises can still occur, good surprises that affirm life and deny death's dominion. For how long is not the question; how good it is to be alive, is the answer.